In the past, I’ve shared a ton of details on how we collect and use coupons. With that in mind, I thought it might be worthwhile to show off our entire coupon organization system so it’s clear how we do it.
Because of this system, the only time we really invest in coupons is a bit of spare time during Sunday breakfasts, some late evening idle internet surfing, and a few extra minutes when assembling our grocery list. However, we often save $30 at the store because of coupons.
Our system is not one of those complex and obsessive ones that tries to squeeze out every nickel – it’s merely the methodology we’ve found that gives us the maximum bang for the buck.
Here’s how we maximize our coupon value, from top to bottom.
First Stop: Meet Our Coupon Binder
The best place to start is the centerpiece of the system: our coupon binder.
Although this contraption might look like a real coupon binder, it’s actually just a very cheap photo album with clear pockets. Whenever we have a new coupon to add, we just place it in the appropriate place in our binder.
But, what is the appropriate place? We sort our coupons by one criteria and one criteria only: by expiration date. This makes it easy for us to quickly find and eliminate the expired coupons and also keep tabs on the coupons that are getting close to expiration.
Here’s a peek inside the binder:
As you can see, the coupons each have a pocket to themselves, so we can quickly flip through the book and find what we want. We keep multiples of the same coupon in the same pocket. Thumbing through reams of coupons is a giant waste of time and can drastically reduce the savings you’ll gain over time.
Which Coupons Do We Clip?
We have a pretty simple set of criteria for clipping a coupon. First, is it something we’re sure we’ll use? If so, we’ll clip any coupon for that item.
Second, does the coupon have a face value of $1 or more? These are coupons that are usually used as part of a large marketing campaign for a specific product and are ones that are often paired with a sale in the store within the next month or two (the one-month coupon strategy at work).
If we might use the product (in other words, we use that type of product, but not necessarily that brand), we’ll clip it. It’s because of this that I used Herbal Essences shampoo and Old Spice body wash in the shower, for example – I wouldn’t normally buy those brands, but clipping big discount coupons and waiting for a sale made the items very cheap.
Third, is the coupon for an item that’s often cheap or on sale anyway? A good example here is breakfast cereals (which is why you see the Honey Nut Cheerios coupon in the binder above) – they’re usually low in price and regularly go on sale, too.
If a coupon hits one of these categories, we clip it. This means our binder is often close to full and we often toss about half of the coupons we clip.
Where Do We Get Coupons?
Although one might think we invest a ton of time into finding, clipping, and printing coupons, we really don’t. The truth is, it takes very little time each week to collect the coupons we need and toss them in the binder.
On Sunday mornings, I usually clip coupons from the Sunday paper while everyone’s eating breakfast. I’ll just quickly go through the coupon sections, cut the coupons we want, and save any store flyers I see (they’re important later). This is a minimal time investment, because we’d all be sitting there eating breakfast anyway, and it’s a good opportunity to teach the kids how frugal living really works.
If the Sunday coupons are exceptionally good, I’ll go to the local convenience store really early on Monday morning and ask the cashier to let me pillage coupon sections out of the old Sunday papers. In a short amount of time, I can score a dozen flyers and cut the goodies out of them the following Sunday.
On lazy evenings, my wife or I will do some web surfing, finding coupons at places like Coupons.com and Target.com. The latter is especially nice because you can usually double dip at Target, using both Target coupons and regular coupons to boot.
Further, sites like TheKrazyCouponLady.com can tell you which of the most recent coupons pair up with a sale at your favorite store, saving you a ton of work on the front end. Further, the Krazy Coupon Lady offers a slew of printable coupons that you can use in combination with the coupons you get from your local newspaper. Another site, MoneySavingMom.com, does the same, and even allows you to sort coupons online by retailer, item, and expiration date before printing coupons at home.
There are plenty of other websites that allow you to print coupons at home. Here at The Simple Dollar, we even have our own coupon widget you can use to find and print coupons to use at your local grocery store.
Our Pre-Shopping Ritual
Each Friday or Saturday evening, my family sits down and assembles a grocery list. We usually make up a meal plan for the next week, make sure we have everything we need for all of those meals, and then check on the status of our household staples (toiletries, milk, flour, etc.). These items usually make up the bulk of our list.
We usually base our meal plan on the flyer from the local Fareway – one of our preferred grocery stores. We get the Fareway and Hy-Vee flyers (the two main local grocery chains) in the mail each week and then use them to prepare a meal plan, usually preferring the Fareway flyer (because it’s basically lower on almost everything, as we discovered after some careful price-booking). To save as much as possible, we scour the flyers for fresh items on sale and then try to base our meals around those fresh items.
We also go through the flyers and look for obvious loss leaders — items retailers are willing to unload at a loss just to get you in the store. What items are on sale that are low enough to seem genuinely surprising? We try to match these up with coupons we have, so that if we add an extra item to the list, we’re adding something that’s only going to cost pennies. Sometimes, loss leaders can even be free.
We then pull out all of the coupons that match up with items on our list and then put them in a few pages at the back of the binder for easy access when shopping.
The extra time coupons add to our shopping planning is maybe 10 minutes, tops. We put probably half an hour total into our shopping preparation, but our whole preparation plan saves us about $50 per grocery shopping trip, so it’s time well spent.
Our Coupon Strategy at the Store
Although we take our coupon binder grocery shopping, we primarily just stick to our list. We do keep our eyes open for any unadvertised in-store specials – every once in a while, we’ll find one that matches up well with a coupon in our binder and grab it immediately. Aside from this, we just follow the shopping list, then pull out all of our coupons from the back pages of the binder at the checkout aisle.
Our time actually in the store is vastly reduced compared to the time we’d spend without any preparation. In that sense, couponing actually saves us time.
Is Couponing Worth It?
One week, I kept track of the time spent we spent couponing. If you count the time spent at the breakfast table, we spent a total of 23 minutes on coupons alone that week, along with an extra 14 minutes preparing a grocery list and meal plan. In total, that means we spent 37 minutes planning our weekly shopping trip.
When in the store, we saved approximately 15 minutes because we had a tight, clear shopping list to follow, so our total time lost to the coupons was roughly 22 minutes for the week.
The savings from the coupons alone was $21 on our final receipt, which was actually slightly less than average. That means our “wage” for clipping coupons with this system was $57.27 an hour after taxes for the given sample week.
In reality, our savings from investing the time to properly plan our shopping was significantly higher than that, even. By sticking to a shopping list, we avoided many impulse buys. By planning our meals in advance in accordance with the fresh items on sale, we pocketed even more savings on our food purchases. These are additional savings that I’m not even attempting to quantify, but both are real and quite tangible.
Couponing is clearly worth it in our case. The relatively small time investment it adds to our shopping is well worth the real cash savings we realize from our system.
Common Couponing Myths (and Why They’re Wrong)
Even though many people save tons of money by collecting coupons in their spare time, there are many people who just don’t get it. These people usually drum up some excuse as to why couponing doesn’t actually save money. Let me address a few of the usual coupon complaints.
Myth #1: Couponing is stupid because you’re not buying fresh, healthy food.
We rarely use food coupons at all, and when we do, they’re usually for breakfast cereals like Cheerios, frozen vegetables, yogurt, and occasionally ice cream. The vast majority of our coupon clipping is for hygiene items (like shampoo, soap, razors, etc.) and other household items (like dishwashing detergent, etc.).
For example, if you look at the picture of our coupon book above, you’ll see six coupons: one frozen yogurt coupon, one Cheerios coupon, one Ziploc baggie coupon, a toothpaste coupon, a body wash coupon, and a facial cleanser coupon. Not exactly a big pile of junk food – and we still save a lot at the store. Our actual meal planning is based around the fresh produce that’s on sale that week.
Myth #2: Couponing is stupid because it’s not cost effective and is a waste of my time.
We get $57.27 an hour after taxes for something we can largely do in our pajamas at the Sunday morning breakfast table. If you think that’s a waste of your time, be my guest. I consider it a pretty effective use of my time.
Myth #3: Couponing is stupid because it’s all about consumerism.
I don’t really care that much about consumerism if I can get soap for a quarter. I’m not seeking the latest products – I’m seeking cheap. If I can get cheaper, quality items without the coupons, the coupons go in the trash. If you want to label that consumerism, feel free, but I consider it a pretty frugal methodology.
The Bottom Line
No matter what anyone says, it’s possible to save a huge chunk of money on your grocery bill with coupons. To make it worth your time, however, you should come up with a solid strategy to get the most out of the time you spend curating coupons and matching them up to sales. This is the process my family uses to achieve that goal, but your strategy might be different. And that’s perfectly okay. There are enough coupons — and savings — to go around.